World War I is often perceived as a war of stagnation, not just on the battlefield but also on the part of the war’s leaders. The beginning and end of the war were characterized by rapid movement. And behind the scenes, innovation in tactics, technology, and medicine progressed at an impressive rate. Few developments epitomise this progress better than that of the tank.
Britain fielded the first tanks in 1916. It had taken them less than two years to get the concept from the drawing board to the battlefield. An astonishing achievement, it was a testament to the determination of a small band of engineers and innovators, backed by support from the likes of Winston Churchill and Douglas Haig. But the story of tank development didn’t end in 1916. It had only just begun, and a long, difficult road lay ahead. Below are five World War I battles featuring the tank, as well as some of the key moments in its continued evolution during the war.
1. Tanks Make Their World War I Debut on the Somme
The Battle of the Somme in 1916 holds several notable distinctions. The first day, 1st July, was the bloodiest in the history of the British Army. More than 19,000 men were killed going “over the top” in the face of heavy German machine-gun fire. It was also the first real test for the volunteer “New Armies” recruited and trained in the early years of the war. These included many of what became known as the Pals Battalions, so-called because they consisted of men from the same area who were encouraged to join up and serve together. For over four months, the Allies threw attack after attack against powerful German defenses resulting in bloodshed on an unprecedented scale and earning General Sir Douglas Haig the title “The Butcher of the Somme”.
The Battle of the Somme also witnessed the debut of the tank, which Haig hoped would yield a long-awaited breakthrough after months of struggle. The Army ordered 100 of the new tanks named the Mark I, but fewer than 50 had arrived by the planned attack on 15th September. Of those, half failed to reach the front line through various mechanical difficulties. In the end, Haig was left with 25.
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As well as being few in number, the tanks faced other challenges on their first appearance at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. After years of heavy shelling, the ground in the Somme sector was completely churned up and consisted of thick mud. The tanks, already slow and mechanically unreliable, struggled to cope with the conditions. Their novelty also caused problems. The crews had never fought in their new machines before, and they’d had very little time to train with the infantry they were supposed to be supporting.
Nevertheless, despite these challenges, several of the tanks that went into battle could reach quite far into enemy territory before breaking down or becoming stuck. Four tanks supported the infantry in the capture of the village of Flers, one of the successes of the attack. And the psychological impact of the appearance of these great metal monsters lumbering across No Man’s Land caused panic among the German lines.
Though few in number, mechanically dubious, and operated over less than ideal terrain, the tank had demonstrated sufficient potential at Flers to persuade Allied war leaders that it had earned its place.
2. Sinking at Passchendaele
The Third Battle of Ypres – often referred to as Passchendaele after one of the final objectives of the offensive – began in July 1917, less than a year after the tank made its debut. Since 1914, the Allies had occupied the town of Ypres, surrounded on three sides by German positions. In 1917, General Haig planned to break out of Ypres, capture the high ground surrounding it, and push on to the Belgian coast.
By 1917, tank design had moved on. In May of that year, the British introduced the Mark IV, a better-armed and armored version of the Mark I. More than 120 tanks would support the attack at Ypres, but once again, the conditions were not in their favor.
The Third Battle of Ypres is predominantly remembered for two things: the human cost and the mud. The preliminary bombardment of the battlefield churned up the ground, obliterating the ditches that acted as drains. These conditions were compounded by unseasonably heavy rain in July 1917. The result was an almost impassable bog formed of thick, sucking mud. The tanks simply sank. More than 100 were abandoned by their crews.
Ypres was the nadir for the newly formed Tank Corps. They played a minimal role in the rest of the battle, and some began to question whether the tank would ever be a successful weapon on the battlefield.
3. The Tank Shows What It Can Do at Cambrai
Supporters of the tank pressed for opportunities to show its capabilities under the right conditions. Their chance came in November 1917 when a plan was approved for an attack against the Hindenburg Line near Cambrai. Several factors combined to allow the tanks to impact the battle. For the first time, they were used en-masse, with more than 400 tanks participating. The ground was chalky and firm, far better for the tanks than the mud of Passchendaele. Crucially, the attack would be a surprise. Advances in artillery, communications, aerial reconnaissance, and mapping did away with the need for a preliminary bombardment.
The opening attack on 20th November, spearheaded by the massed tanks, was an outstanding success. The Allies had advanced up to 5 miles within hours and took 8,000 prisoners. On 23rd November, the bells of St Paul’s Cathedral in London rang for the first time since 1914 in celebration of a great victory. Unfortunately, the celebrations were short-lived. Although the opening attacks made significant gains, the British lacked sufficient reinforcements to maintain the momentum. Germans launched a counterattack, utilizing new infantry tactics featuring fast-moving, heavily armed “storm” troops who infiltrated the Allied lines. The counterattack pushed the British back, and they were forced to surrender some of the territory they had previously captured.
The Battle of Cambrai didn’t turn out to be the great victory Britain had hoped for. For the tanks, however, it was a moment of great significance. When used as a concentrated force, tanks had shown how powerful their impact could be. Cambrai also demonstrated the potential of combining tanks with infantry, artillery, machine guns, and air power. This was a crucial lesson for the Allies in using combined-arms warfare that would come to fruition at the Battle of Amiens.
4. The First Tank vs. Tank Battle
It was inevitable that Germany would develop its own version of the tank. Sure enough, the A7V made its debut in 1918. In April of that year, Germany planned an attack on the town of Villers-Bretonneux as part of their advance on Amiens. This battle would go down in history as featuring the first tank versus tank encounter.
The German attack on 24th April opened with a devastating barrage laced with poison gas and smoke. German infantry and tanks emerged from the haze and entered the town. In the center of Villers-Bretonneux, three British tanks, two female Mark IVs and one male, came face to face with three A7Vs. Armed only with machine guns, the two female tanks could not do much damage to the thick armor of the German A7Vs and were soon forced to retire. But the male, armed with two 6-pounder guns, unleashed a carefully aimed round at the lead German tank, which killed its gun operator. Successive rounds wounded several members of the A7V’s 18-strong crew, and all three German tanks retreated.
The first tank vs. tank battle was over. The Battle of Villiers-Bretonneux continued, with Australian forces ultimately pushing the German attackers out of the town.
5. The Battle of Amiens
The Battle of Amiens marked the starting point of a period of World War I known as The Hundred Days Offensive, during which the Allies launched a series of offensives that ultimately led to the defeat of Germany. 1918 opened with the German Spring Offensive, launched intending to defeat the Allies before the huge supplies of men and equipment from the United States could be brought to bear. By July, German forces were exhausted, and the Spring Offensive ended without the victory Germany had sought.
The Allies selected an area around the River Somme to launch their counterattack near the city of Amiens. Amiens was a crucial transport hub for the Allies, with a rail link to Paris, so keeping the Germans out of artillery range was an important factor in its selection. However, another consideration was the terrain in this area: it was well suited for tanks.
The battle would be a combined effort between the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force, which included British, Canadian, and Australian forces. Secrecy was critical, so supplies for the attack were transported at night, and many of the soldiers didn’t receive their orders until the last possible minute. At Amiens, the Tank Corps would deploy hundreds of the latest British tank type, the Mark V, as well as a smaller, lighter, faster tank called the Whippet.
The offensive at Amiens brought together many of the lessons the Allies had learned over the course of the war. On 8th August, infantry, supported by over 400 tanks, 2,000 guns, and 1,900 aircraft, launched an “all arms” attack. This powerful force punched through the German lines in spectacular fashion. By the end of the day, the Allies had captured 13,000 prisoners. The man in charge of German forces, General Ludendorff, called it “the Black Day of the German Army.”
Tanks In World War I
The story of the tank is emblematic of the learning curve the Allies faced during World War I. It is also a testament to their capacity for innovation and adaptation. Between 1916 and 1918, the Allies learned how best to use tanks and, crucially, how to combine them with infantry, artillery, and air power to achieve an “all arms” effort. This style of warfare would come to characterize the next global conflict: World War II.